It's not technically legal, but if the feds had it their way, they could have easy access to all the data on our phone even if it is password protected, The Wall Street Journal's Julia Angwin explains. While the government has made it clear that a lot of our phone data isn't really ours -- on Tuesday a Federal court said our location related data was "not constitutionally protected" -- there are still some limits to what the FBI can get easily get its hands on. "Government agents can often obtain data stored with third parties without obtaining a search warrant," writes Angwin. "But that standard doesn't take into account data as sensitive as a password," she continues. The FBI has the option to subpoena the phone owner for their password, but that's a tricky legal issue. Rather, it would appreciate easier access, as she explains in her lengthy account of the issue.
One way the FBI tries to get around the rules is to go through the phone makers themselves. For now, it sounds like these companies aren't as complacent as the FBI might like. "Google Inc. GOOG +1.34% earlier this year refused to unlock an alleged pimp's cellphone powered by its Android software—even after the Federal Bureau of Investigation obtained a search warrant," writes Angwin. Apple has a similar policy: "We never share anyone's passcode," a spokesperson told Angwin. But, apparently Google has complied in other similar situations, as Softpedia's Lucian Parfeni notes, which may have contributed to the FBI's current attitude, suggests Michael Arrington over at Uncrunched. "After a couple of years of this the police won’t just be happy they can track anyone – they’ll start to really think that they have the absolute right to track everyone," he writes. For now, thanks in part to Google, the FBI does not have that absolute right. But there's a battle brewing.